CAMBRIDGE — Faith and science, innovation and tradition, math and poetry . . . these concepts are often presented as opposing entities dueling in eternal conflict.
The rock-solid architecture of Laura Maria Censabella's "Paradise" is built on a series of these binary relationships, but they are not set in opposition. Instead, the playwright seems to view these twinned items as part of a circular continuum, each feeding and drawing from the other.
Censabella's riveting two-hander, now receiving a deeply satisfying world premiere by Underground Railway Theater, posits two characters in apparent conflict. A 17-year-old Yemeni-American high school senior wants the chance to re-do a science assignment she failed, and her burned-out teacher hasn't the least interest in doing more than clocking out his day at their failing Bronx school and heading home.
He becomes her mentor, then her full-fledged collaborator. In the time-honored tradition of apprenticeship tales like this, the student winds up giving an education to the teacher. But while this arc is familiar, Censabella pulls the rare feat of creating a play of ideas whose twists feel like the inevitable outcome of its action; while the whole affair unspools like clockwork, we rarely hear the whirring of its gears.
Caitlin Nasema Cassidy brings a focused intensity to the role of Yasmeen al-Hamadi, a student who has lately discovered a love of science and has her heart set on a Columbia University program for Muslim-American women. Barlow Adamson puts some snarl at the front of his portrayal of Dr. Guy Royston, but allows us just enough of a glimpse of the wounds he's defending with his aggressive affect.
She has some insight into teenage behavior that, in the context of a scholarly framework he's previously published, offers the two a vital avenue for research: the brain chemistry behind first love. She hopes it'll land her the coveted scholarship; he spies a path to redemption from the episode of professional misconduct that saw him exiled to the public school system.
Fascinatingly, Yasmeen makes a case for her family's traditional practices — including her already-arranged marriage — that sounds entirely sensible. She's never met her betrothed, who was selected in part due to his suitability to help out with her uncle's business, but isn't she better off than the teen moms in her class who drop off their kids at the school's child-care center every morning? Royston was raised in a religious family, but declared his belief in evolution at age 14 and has been antagonistic toward faith ever since. He seems to have an extra chip on his shoulder about Islam, but when Yasmeen calls him "ignorant," the word lands like the harshest possible epithet.
Shana Gozansky's sensitive direction and careful pacing allow these two characters' relationship to deepen and complicate without a sense of checking off items from a list. Jenna McFarland Lord's nicely detailed set is another asset.
Among the play's accomplishments is its exploration of Yasmeen's place at a crossroads of culture — new Yemeni immigrants turn up in her community regularly, and the young men among them enforce some particularly regressive social norms — without reducing its pluralist message to a hand-holding sing-along. Censabella sprinkles the text with various parallels meant to indicate the common ground between believer and skeptic, between Muslim and Christian or Jew.
As the teacher and student's research project continues, which of the two stands to gain the most becomes unclear. The line between faith and scientific observation is hard to discern; we can all use a good dose of each, the play implies.
"Paradise" engages both the head and the heart, until a final, light-shedding gesture adds another bit of poetry to mix in with its science.
Play by Laura Maria Censabella. Directed by Shana Gozansky. Presented by Underground Railway Theater. A Catalyst Collaborative@MIT production. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through May 7. Tickets $20-$61, 617-576-9278, ext. 1, www.centralsquaretheater.org
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.